It was only 19 years ago that candidate Bill Clinton shocked the oldsters by donning a pair of dark sunglasses and belting out a soulful rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” on the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show. It was a breakthrough in presidential campaigns that helped Clinton reach a segment of the electorate that had been ignored by more traditional candidates.
Clinton’s success made it OK for serious candidates and presidents to go on popular talk shows. And on Tuesday, President Obama is doing just that, sitting down with the host of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. It will be Obama’s fourth appearance with Leno, his second as president. When he was there March 19, 2009, he became the first sitting president to appear on the show.
It is amazing how much the perception of such appearances has changed in the less than two decades since Clinton took his sax to Arsenio Hall’s stage. As president, Obama has made the rounds of all the top shows. In addition to his two gigs with Leno, the president has sat down with Oprah, danced with Ellen, chatted with Dave, and schmoozed with the ladies on The View. He also made two appearances on the Comedy Channel, ordering a military haircut for Stephen Colbert in 2009 and talking about his presidency with Jon Stewart in 2010.
Each time, there were some murmurs of disapproval—but nothing like the opprobrium that greeted Clinton’s Arsenio performance. Official Washington was horrified. “Am I such an old fogey that I thought that it was undignified?” asked Barbara Walters at the time. Torie Clarke, who then worked for President George H.W. Bush’s campaign, called it “embarrassing,” adding that Clinton “looked like a sad John Belushi wannabe.”
But what was generally overlooked at the time was that when Clinton doffed the shades and sat down with Hall, the two had perhaps the most candid and interesting discussion on racism that was seen in the entire campaign. In the wake of the Los Angeles riots that had just occurred, Clinton talked about “reconnecting with the American community” and observed that “those folks are invisible until they raise hell.”
Just as Clinton adviser Mandy Grunwald said at the time, the show allowed Clinton “to convey biography and personality” in a fresh way to fresh parts of the electorate.
“I was critical when he went on Arsenio,” said Marlin Fitzwater, who was White House press secretary to George H.W. Bush. “But it worked. It was the right thing for him. It was the right point in history ... President Clinton was very good at it. And very clever. And I think the time was right and the country was ready for a different kind of attitude.”
While Clinton was a pioneer on the popular talk shows, he was not the first presidential candidate in the TV age to dive into popular culture during a campaign. Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy may have that honor. Both appeared on Jack Paar's Tonight Show during the 1960 campaign. Kennedy took questions from Paar's audience and Nixon asked for Paar's autograph. Ron Nessen -- later a White House press secretary but then a newspaper reporter -- wrote at the time that Paar's questions were "about as weighty and pointed as a marshmallow."
Nixon also had a memorable Sept. 16, 1968 appearance on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. It only lasted a few seconds, long enough for a scowling Nixon to utter the show’s favorite line: “Sock it to me.” It was such an instant hit, softening Nixon’s image, that the show’s producers tried to persuade Vice President Hubert Humphrey to also appear on the show. But Humphrey viewed it as undignified and refused to appear. It was a decision that Humphrey strategists later said was a factor in his narrow loss that year to Nixon.
Later candidates have been less worried about their dignity and more interested in the high ratings and young demographics of the shows. Both Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2007. President George W. Bush had a cameo on Deal or No Deal. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announced his candidacy on Late Show With David Letterman. Arnold Schwarzenegger also announced his gubernatorial candidacy on Leno's Tonight Show.
When he was trying to revive his flagging presidential candidacy, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., memorably donned a leather jacket and a helmet and drove a Harley Davidson onto Leno’s stage in late 2003. More recently, Republicans Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul have sat down on the couches of the late-night shows.
There have been slips, of course. Clinton later regretted answering one question when he appeared as president on MTV on April 19, 1994. He was asked if he wore briefs or boxers and, unfortunately, answered the question about his underwear preferences.
For the most part, the appearances have given the politicians opportunities to soften their images and show their humorous sides. Clinton used an appearance with Johnny Carson in 1988 to recover from his disastrously long Democratic convention speech, putting an hourglass on the desk. Obama joked to Letterman, “It’s important to realize that I was actually black before the election.” McCain joked to Leno that he was so old that his Social Security number was a single digit.
But just as Clinton talked racism with Hall, all the candidates managed to get across their serious messages—just not always the way they planned. When McCain canceled an appearance in 2008 with Letterman, the comedian skewered him nightly until a sheepish McCain returned to his stage. Instead of jokes, McCain was grilled by Letterman, much to his obvious discomfort.
On Tuesday night, Obama won’t be playing the sax, won’t be riding a Harley, and almost certainly won’t be talking about briefs or boxers. He just hopes he doesn’t get a McCain-like grilling.